Public Transit Field Trip

Intern Sean Rusnak leads a transit field trip at the Greenlink transit center

By Sean Rusnak, Piedmont Health Foundation Intern, Furman University

This summer, the Piedmont Health Foundation hosted its first “Greenlink Field Trip” with twelve enthusiastic participants from Westminster Presbyterian Church and Furman University’s OLLI program. The field trip aims get non-riders to ride a Greenlink bus and to educate them about our public transit system. Participants took part in the full transit experience, meeting at Westminster Presbyterian Church and catching a bus on Augusta Street to Greenlink’s downtown transfer facility.

The new riders hustled to their bus stop only for it to arrive five minutes later than expected, prompting several concerned murmurs of whether we had missed the bus and ruined the day’s plans. The field trippers realized that their concerns and worries likely emulate those experienced by everyday riders. Fortunately, the bus was cool and shady on a hot summer’s day, and our group arrived at the bus station right on time. Although they were given day passes, the newly recruited riders still had the task of figuring out how to pay the fare which they were able to do after a little assistance from the driver.

The participants’ best personal experiences came from talking to everyday riders while on the bus. Our participants were moved by the stories they heard of dependence on transit and the difficulties many of the riders faced. One field tripper talked with a service worker who had broken her foot and was unable to drive and had to walk two miles to the nearest bus stop just to get to work. Other participants heard stories about the need for extended hours or routes to suit critical needs such as employment. These discussions left our field trip group impassioned and ready to demand changes in Greenlink’s service to be sure that all these people’s needs were met.

Our guests were warmly welcomed at Greenlink’s transfer station by Nicole McAden, Marketing and Public Affairs Specialist, and Gary Shepard, Director of Public Transit. Nicole and Gary educated their new found riders about Greenlink’s system operations, funding sources, constraints on service, and opportunities for growth. Participants were astonished as they realized that there is a lot more to Greenlink’s service than meets the eye. They were impressed to discover how Greenlink was such a good steward of its allotted resources.

The group engaged in a discussion which was fueled by the people they met and the stories they heard on their bus ride to the station. The group was eager to improve transportation for all Greenville citizens, from the frequent riders they had met earlier that day, to current non riders like themselves. They were motivated to advocate for improved and expanded public transit because better transit means a better Greenville for everyone; transportation opens doors for employment, education, health, and affordable housing. The group ultimately concluded that Greenville cannot grow and thrive without also growing its public transit system.

The trip back to Westminster was filled with positive feelings and commendation of Greenlink’s staff and services. There were discussions about how to support the system, educate friends and family, and encourage support from our local government. As one participant observed, Greenlink had previously been an afterthought to her, perceived as an inefficient bus system with low ridership. Now, she has gained a new found respect for the system and the important role is plays in so many Greenvillians’ daily lives. She realized that even though she will not be a core rider, Greenlink’s services are crucial to making Greenville thrive now and in the future.

Overall, the Greenlink Field Trip was a resounding success, educating and exciting a new base of support. Greenlink has recently gained significant momentum with the establishment of new management, the completion of their Comprehensive Operational Analysis, and their application for the “Low-No” Grant which could award them up to 6 Proterra electric buses. It’s a new day for Greenlink, and it’s time to reintroduce people to Greenville’s mass transit system.

If you’re interested in participating as an individual or scheduling a field trip for a group, please contact Sean Rusnak at seanrusnak@piedmonthealthfoundation.org.

 

Greenlink’s Comprehensive Operational Analysis

How can Greenlink, the public transit system that serves Greenville County, South Carolina, be made more efficient and more responsive to riders?  And how can it do so within its already modest budget?

Greenlink’s route map, as of June 2017

This is one of the key questions of a study currently underway.  The study, called a Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA), provides a snapshot of the current system: which routes and stops are being the most utilized and when are people riding, which areas have housing and employment densities that will best support transit use, the effectiveness and efficiency of its maintenance and operations, and more. Most interesting, the study will provide recommendations for budget-neutral changes that Greenlink could make to better serve the community.

The COA was one of the top recommendations from the Piedmont Health Foundation’s 2015 study of public transit and health and human services transportation.  During that study, it became apparent that Greenlink’s routes were designed long ago and had not been reevaluated in years.  Additionally, Greenlink lacked data on where and when riders were getting on and off the buses, which would help staff and the Greenville Transit Authority Board know what is working and what might need adjustment.  The COA, funded by the City of Greenville, County of Greenville, and Piedmont Health Foundation, is designed to provide that important information.

Connetics Transportation Group (CTG) of Atlanta was hired to conduct the COA, with oversight and input from a community steering committee.  They have spent hundreds of hours riding buses; interviewing drivers; surveying riders; leading focus groups with community members, business leaders, elected officials, and others; analyzing data on the community and stop-level ridership numbers; studying Greenlink’s maintenance and transit facilities; and more.

The consultants are identifying many needs and opportunities for Greenlink.  However, one of their main charges required that any changes must not cost the system more money than it has available currently.  Policy makers and community members have wondered if the system is as efficient as it could be and whether there are “easy fixes” to better serve residents.

I’m reminded of the scene in Apollo 13 when engineers are charged with figuring out how to bring the incapacitated spacecraft home using only the supplies currently on the ship. A box full of what appeared to be junk was dumped on the table at mission control, and the NASA team got to work.

Greenlink staff and the consultants from CTG have a similar task: serve the community as well or better but with the same old diesel buses, the same inadequate maintenance facility, and the same woefully low level of funding.

Like the Apollo 13 team, I believe Greenlink will be successful.  The skill and passion of their staff and the loyalty of their riders will, indeed, go a long way.

Service change recommendations will be presented to the Board of Greenville Transit Authority this summer, and Greenlink will seek public input on these ideas throughout the fall. I encourage you to take part in this process and help spread the word about Greenlink’s plans.

But as you do, imagine what Greenlink could be if it had more than the figurative box full of supplies to work with?  Hopefully, a future-looking Transit Development Plan will answer that question for Greenlink in early 2018.

Youth transportation options…other than Mom’s minivan

It’s summertime, and while the livin’ is generally easy, as a mom, I still seem to spend a lot of time driving people places. Now that school is out, the number one question I’m asked by my fourteen year old is: “Can I go to ___?”

Which really means: “Can you drive me to ___?”

Fourteen is a tough age. My daughter is mature enough to independently meet up with friends for lunch, movies, shopping, and “hanging out.” But since she’s a year too young to drive and with most places too far to walk or bike, it’s hard to make that happen without a ride from mom or dad.

Youth and transportation
A bus ride works for my daughter and friends when I’m not available to shuttle them places. Plus, it’s a better setting for Instagram photos than my minivan.

Fortunately, Greenlink, our public transit system, comes through our neighborhood once an hour, and she can ride to our beautiful downtown for $1.25 in ten easy minutes. So I taught her how to ride the bus.

It took some convincing, though. Because here in Greenville County, South Carolina, in our upper middle class neighborhood, the number of folks who choose to take the bus is about as high as the number who choose to travel by rickshaw.

In urban communities, of course, public transit is part of daily life for most residents – students in particular. More than 15,000 students in Boston ride the T to school each day, using passes provided by Boston Public Schools. In 2012, Minneapolis Public Schools moved nearly 5,000 high school students from school buses to the metro bus system. Students in urban communities use public transit for education, work, recreation, and anywhere else the bus or train will take them.

Liz Seman, Executive Director of Corporate Engagement at Furman University and a member of Greenville County Council recalls her experiences as a teen in a more urban community. “Growing up in the Chicago area, using public transportation was second nature,” she says, “Whether it was taking the train into the city to visit my Dad at his office (or to see a Cubs game) or hopping on the bus to get from one end of Michigan Avenue to the other, public transportation made navigating the Windy City a breeze!”

But for car-owning families in the Southeast, public transit just isn’t “a thing.”

However, at least in my relatively urban neighborhood, teens who can’t drive or don’t have a car do have a choice. They could ride a bus.

But as our study of public transit and health and human services transportation showed, the majority of Greenville County teens live in more sparsely populated suburban areas far from public transportation. Those without a car or a ride will find themselves stuck at home.
It’s disappointing for a teen to miss a movie or lunch with a friend because they couldn’t get a ride. But consider the opportunities that so many students without any transportation miss.

  • Summer volunteering, which is often the first building block of a teenager’s resume.
  • Summer enrichment, whether it’s a theatre camp or music lesson or team sport.
  • Summer employment, which can boost a teen’s income, financial literacy, and later employability.
  • Summer freedom – the sense that there is a world beyond one’s home and neighborhood, a world that he or she can navigate without the help of mom or dad.

In our community, Momentum Bike Clubs are side-stepping the absence of robust public transit in low-wealth neighborhoods by connecting middle schoolers with biking. These kids are pedaling all over Greenville County, seeing mountains and farmland they never knew were just a few miles from their homes.

But wouldn’t it be great if these kids – and teens all over – could put their bikes on the front of a bus and go even farther? It’s part of what MDC calls the “infrastructure of opportunity” for the next generation.

As a mom, I for one would be delighted to stay in the hammock (ha ha!) instead of firing up the family shuttle yet again.

Fortunately, my daughter has come around and sees the benefit of riding in the air conditioned bus to go places when I can’t (or won’t) take her. I just wish that were possible for more kids (and their parent chauffeurs).

Transportation & Poverty

Imagine that you’ve worked for months – possibly years – to earn your GED, and finally you’ve been awarded this credential to put yourself on a path to financial stability.

And imagine that you’ve been offered a job, your first job with a wage that might allow you to make ends meet.  You got the job because of your GED, a good reference from a mentor at the GED program, and the positive impression you made on the manager.

And the fact that you have a car.  You had to be able to check the box on the application that says you have your own transportation.

But now, on your first day of work, that car – with 200,000 miles on it, a broken AC, and lots of duct tape holding it together – won’t start.

Your bridge from poverty to stability is letting you down again.

Transportation and poverty
Shandy Garrison was able to leave her old car at the junk yard and purchase a new-to-her car to get her from rural Slater to a new medical records job. Most rural residents without reliable transportation remain disconnected from job opportunities.

We often equate car ownership with mobility, but considering that the spectrum of cars ranges from brand new Cadillacs to ancient clunkers and car owners include both millionaires and paupers, it makes sense that “car ownership” isn’t a binary proxy for connectivity.

Our transportation study of Greenville County, SC showed that while 75% of the 3,500 plus survey respondents owned a car, a quarter of them were at times unable to drive it because they couldn’t afford repairs or gasoline.  Of those unable to drive, half said they were stuck a few times a month or more.

I don’t know of many employers who would allow an employee to keep a job when regularly missing work that often.

The 2010 Census reported that only 8% of Greenville County households did not own a vehicle. But considering that 15.4% of Greenville County residents were living in poverty and that about half of Americans have insufficient savings to cover a minor emergency, it’s likely that many more people find themselves practically without transportation. Like the mythological Tantalus, condemned for eternity to live in water up to his neck and beneath a fruit tree just out of reach, these folks reside in a county full of economic prosperity but with a broken down car parked in their yard.

Deborah McKetty, President and CEO of CommunityWorks, Inc. sees this firsthand. CommunityWorks is a Community Development Credit Union in Greenville whose mission is empowering low wealth families and communities. She says, “We are one of the least mobile communities in the nation, with only 27% of the working-age population having access to transit. We see this growing problem on a daily basis, as our clients and many low-wealth families throughout Greenville continually struggle to access educational and employment opportunities without transportation. Without the means to access these services, low-families cannot achieve upward mobility”.

We cannot ignore how critical transportation is to moving people out of poverty.  If we lack a robust public transportation system – whether fixed route buses serving all shifts, work shuttles, ride shares, vanpools or other solutions – we must find ways to connect workers to jobs.  The costs to society for unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits, and charitable support are high (not to mention the impact on the recipient’s morale).

Some emergency assistance programs in Greenville County can help with car repairs or gas for those moving from job training to employment. Organizations such as United Ministries and CommunityWorks Carolina help residents accrue emergency savings for car repairs to avoid being without transportation or connect them with low interest credit for a car purchase.

But a robust public transit can serve everyone.  It makes it possible for someone to affordably get to and from work for the long term, and the lower costs to use public transit can allow them to save money for a car of their own or for repairs.

So the next time you see an old car barely making it down the street, say a prayer for the person driving it, because that car is a lifeline.  And consider how we as a community can do better.